America scores: Fostering poet-athletes

Heather O’Keeffe

We, the 4,000 or so undergraduate students at Case Western Reserve University, are unbelievably lucky. We are studying at a top-ranked university (we are currently ranked 37th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report), involved in diverse extracurricular activities and enjoying many gratifying experiences.

However, millions of adolescents across the country face slim chances of continuing their education beyond high school, much less attending a stellar school such as our own. This is far too often forgotten.

I am not the first to say that education is a problem in America and I certainly am not the first to volunteer my time for the sake of education. But maybe if I share my excitement to give back, others may feel inclined to do the same. And eventually adolescents from all walks of life will not take their solid education for granted.

Last semester I caught a ride home from a soccer referee clinic with a youth soccer coach from Euclid Heights. He told me about a program called America Scores, which visits inner city schools and combines soccer with writing. It immediately caught my interest. It is my lifelong goal to one day work for the Olympics – to use sport as a tool for human and global development. Thus, America Scores was right up my alley.

Last Monday was the first day of the 2013 fall season of the program. The participating kids, third through fifth grade, were all ready to start. The boys were talking to their coach about teammates who had moved and which schools they were going to beat, a preseason discussion any athlete is familiar with. One girl was already in her practice clothes with mini Air Jordans on and brightly colored polka dot socks pulled up to her knees. The third grade newbies asked questions in the long, roundabout way kids ask questions while the fifth grader returnees acted with a cool confidence as they recited the rules.

The energy the students have for playing soccer is funneled into becoming better students and community members. Twice a week students must attend a writing session with their writing coaches and at the end the season their efforts are culminated in a poetry slam. Last year the partner schools performed a variety of team and individual poetry readings all in the effort to take home the coveted Golden Mic.

Since both soccer and poetry are fundamental in America Scores, participants are referred to as poet-athletes. The magic of the program is held within this straightforward, yet unconventional term. During Monday’s session the students were eager to begin a new season as poet-athletes and very much understood the importance of writing and soccer. While taking pride in being a poet-athlete, students embraced discipline, teamwork, leadership, sportsmanship, commitment and a love of learning.

America Scores has been so successful because of the combination of soccer and writing. The writing alone would not have the same effect because there is something so alluring and intoxicating about sports. They get you moving; are energizing; create instant bonds between fellow teammates and fans; give spectators and participants a huge sense of pride. They encourage expression and growth.

Recreational sports open the door to thousands of possibilities and are far more diverse than merely playing professionally. In my mind, sports are a perfect, if not the perfect, means to teach life skills and instill life lessons.

The poet-athletes I met Monday night were ready to play, write, and grow. I am ready to help them shoot and rhyme. Together the poet-athletes, coaches, America Scores and myself can put something we all love (soccer) to the service of something far more important: education. Maybe soccer can aid in sparking a lust for lifelong learning and maybe one of these poet-athletes will be a member of the CWRU class of 2025. I believe in all of the above.

Heather O’Keeffe is a sophomore pursuing a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in sports medicine. This summer she sliced meat in a deli and developed a very defined watch tan.